Bob Dylan might be the most covered artist in music history and it’s not because of his extensive back catalog of songs (nearly 900 and growing), but it’s because of what his words are about; love, heartbreak, society, God, history, and just about everything else. There are very few artists who haven’t been inspired by Dylan in one form or another. Dylan’s Lyrics speak to the poet (and fragility) in us all so what better way for artists to show their admiration than through his own songs?
With nearly 1000 songs on paper (and probably 1000 covers of just one of those to be found on YouTube) you’d think it would be hard to come up with ten favorite covers but it was rather easy (also because I plan on choosing another ten Dylan covers for a second article soon). I picked the ten most that I felt were the most heartfelt—except the first one on this list which I felt was one of the more original takes on a classic Dylan song I’ve heard. Even though it might not move a listener as others on this list—it was the song that actually inspired me to write this article. You might cry at the end but for right now let’s rock out Dylan style.
Bryan Ferry: “The Times They Are A-Changing”
It’s almost impossible for anybody to record a bad version of this title song from Dylan’s third studio released album of the same name. There have been moving versions of the song (Tracy Chapman’s) and cheeky version (as recently as 2016 the late Chris Cornell performed a version with updated lyrics aimed toward the current U.S. presidential administration) but one I recently discovered was former Roxy Music’s front-man Bryan Ferry’s upbeat take from his 2007 Dylan tribute album Dylanesque. This album features Ferry take on “A Simple Twist of Fate”, “Positively 4th Street”, and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” while his classic seductive voice takes on a rare level of gravitas and urgency with “Times” and with a couple of female backup singers joining Ferry as he almost purrs the title refrain, this version almost takes on a gospel sense of itself.
Eric Clapton: “Walk Out in the Rain”
This song was written while Dylan was writing material for 1978’s Street Legal but for whatever reason, Dylan never actually recorded it himself. It wound up instead on Eric Clapton’s Backless from the same year. As Street Legal contained such song titles as “Is Your Love In Vain?” and “We Better Talk This Over”, they were remarkably different in tone and sound from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks which were more intimate and sparse. Yet, the anger exhibited in “Idiot Wind” is evident in many parts of Street. Perhaps it’s because Street Legal was written while Dylan was involved in a bitter divorce with then-wife Sara Dylan.
Clapton’s version is a bluesy effort that somehow sounds more confessional than how Dylan may have possibly sung it. “Walk Out in the Rain” is a song about the end of a relationship where both parties understand it’s the end, and there’s just no use at all in going forward. One could say Dylan would have infused the song with the feeling of weariness that is evident all over Street Legal while Clapton’s tone is more “it is what it is,” and perhaps felt it was more to Clapton’s sensibilities. Especially when one realizes that Backless also featured another Dylan song titled “If I Don’t Be There By Morning.”
George Harrison: “Absolutely Sweet Marie”
On Oct. 16, 1992, a collection of the music world’s biggest and best assembled at Madison Square Garden for The Bob Dylan 30th Concert Celebration or “Bobfest”—commemorating the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s debut album. Acts included John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Vedder, Kris Kristofferson, Lou Reed, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Tracy Chapman, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Neil Young, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Chrissie Hynde, Sinéad O’Connor (who was famously booed from the stage), Richie Havens, Sophie B. Hawkins (who had included “I Want You” on her then just-released debut, Tongues and Tails), Willie Nelson, The Band, Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin and performing backup vocals, a young pre-fame Sheryl Crow.
Backing up these performers were original members of the Blues Brothers along with Letterman drummer Anton Fig all under the musical direction of longtime Saturday Night Live bandleader G. E. Smith. It was a show unlike any other full of showstoppers (most notably Hynde’s gospel-tinged “I Shall be Released” and Clapton’s fiery “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”), but one of my favorites has always been George Harrison’s rock-heavy performance of Blonde on Blonde’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” After he tackled the song (oddly one of the few from Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde which were played that night), the crowd roared for Harrison as if he was on-stage with The Beatles once again. Judging by the smile on his face after performing Dylan’s song he probably felt that way too.
The Belle Brigade: “No Time To Think”
The Belle Brigade are Barbara Gruska and Ethan Gruska, an instrumental sibling duo from Los Angeles with a dazzling music pedigree running through their family. Their father, Jay, is a well-known TV composer (Charmed, Beverly Hills 90210, Supernatural) and their grandfather is none other than legendary film composer John Williams! Formed in 2008, The Belle Brigade earned notices by having a song featured in the first Twilight movie but in 2012 they received critical acclaim with their exuberant, knockout cover of Dylan’s “No Time to Think” (again from Street Legal) on the four-disc Dylan tribute compilation Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.
Nearly 70 artists contributed new renderings of Dylan songs to the project and all are unique. Still, for me, the feeling and energy conveyed in Belle Brigade’s version of Dylan’s nearly nine-minute original outshines even his own by miles (it didn’t help that Street Legal’s original muddy mix was considered somewhat abysmal — the 2003 remastered version presented a much clearer listening experience). For a compilation that also featured Adele, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Carly Simon, Sting, Miley Cyrus and Pete Seeger, the fact that Belle Brigade’s effort is a standout is saying something. Just how good is this track? Time magazine listed it as one the best songs of 2012.
Joan Baez: “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word”
Again, not an actual Dylan cover as Dylan himself never recorded a version of this song (although we can see him performing bits of it in D. A. Pennebaker’s classic Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back) and one isn’t sure if Dylan ever had any intention of recording it himself. Legend is that Baez started singing passages while Dylan was still writing versus on to the paper and after listening to her sing it, he felt there was no way he could do any better vocally.
This is one of the legendary “unfinished” Dylan songs (much like 1989’s “Dignity” which went through many iterations before finally being released in 1994) as Baez kept on adding verses to it over the years (in fact, the first version Baez officially released on her album Any Day Now ran a minute shorter than the version above). Originally released as a B-side to Baez’s single of Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” this song has been re-recorded at least three times by Baez. Dylan has never released his own and has never even performed it in concert since it was written in 1965. Dylan and Baez will most likely not share a stage ever again, but “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” will bind them together forever.
Billy Joel: “Make You Feel My Love”
I first heard this song when Billy Joel performed it on The Late Show with David Letterman in late summer, ’97 to promote his third greatest hits compilation. When Joel finished singing there was hardly a dry eye in the audience. I’ve never really been much of a Billy Joel fan but I remember how tremendous he was at conveying the force of Dylan’s lyrics. A year later Garth Brooks sang a more neutered version of the song for the soundtrack to Hope Floats and the covers haven’t stopped since. They have even eclipsed Dylan’s version which appeared on his 1997 release Time Out of Mind. “Make You Feel My Love” has never stopped affecting listeners as everyone from Ed Sheeran, country singer Lindsay Ell (whom I interviewed two years ago), Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood and just about every third contestant on those reality singing talent shows has performed versions of it at one time.
Perhaps its most recent and touching use was sung by Lea Michele in the 2013 episode of Glee dedicated to the late Cory Monteith. Still, all these covers did not have the epic, forceful feel that Joel’s version did – the first and best version out there. A close second is a version covered by Adele which she first performed in 2011 on none other but The Late Show with David Letterman demonstrating how Dylan’s words are truly generational and how his songs always come back around full circle.
Joan Osborne: “Dark Eyes”
The album from which “Dark Eyes” originates (1985’s Empire Burlesque) is not thought of as one of Dylan’s more memorable efforts; this nearly forgotten song has often been considered to be one of Dylan’s most revealing. With lyrics such as “a million faces at my feet, but all I see are dark eyes”, many felt it was a telling statement on how Dylan possibly sees his throngs of fans when he’s performing. Empire Burlesque was one of Dylan’s ’80s synth-heavy efforts with much mixing, editing, dubbing and embellishments which was the mainstream pop sound at the time (utilized and made popular by artists such as Prince and Duran Duran).
However, the final song on the album, “Dark Eyes” didn’t contain any of these elements—it was just Dylan on guitar and harmonica and was released as simply as it was recorded. Maybe this is why it feels like pure, genuine Dylan as opposed to the other tracks on Empire and is considered to be the song with the most feeling. And to think, the song was inspired by a chance encounter with a call-girl in a hotel one night. In 2017, Joan Osbourne included it on her Dylan tribute album Songs of Bob Dylan, one of the better Dylan tribute albums in recent memory and performed “Dark Eyes” just as Dylan intended; simply and beautifully.
Sinéad O’Connor: “Property of Jesus”
Sinéad O’Connor might have been booed from the stage at the 1992 Dylan tribute concert (she did make it to the stage at the end of the show where she joined everybody in a performance of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”). Still, her admiration and reverence for Dylan never waned. Nearly 20 years later she lent her voice to the four-disc compilation Chimes of Freedom — The Songs of Bob Dylan in support of 50 years of Amnesty International. O’Connor sings “Property of Jesus” from Dylan’s overlooked 1981 album Shot of Love. It’s a curious album in that contains a song about Lenny Bruce and enjoying summer and not as overtly religious as his previous two albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved). However, there’s something about this album in particular which moved O’Connor immensely, and she has turned to it more often than other well-known Dylan albums.
The song plays like a defence of Dylan’s Christian beliefs amidst the criticism leveled at him during this period and it reminds one of the criticisms thrown Dylan’s way when he went electric in the mid-60s. But whichever way you choose to look at Shot of Love (and the two songs on this list from it), there’s no denying the power in O’Connor’s voice as she ferociously owns this song. She doesn’t just sing this – she howls it into existence from places deep inside her. It’s a song filled with the visible struggle of a performer who has not had the easiest life these past decades. In case you have forgotten what a force O’Connor could be vocally, take a listen to this song. I promise you that you will be blown-freakin’-away!
The Peter Malick Group featuring Norah Jones: “Heart of Mine”
I first heard this cover of Dylan’s “Heart of Mine” as it played over the end credits of 2003’s lackluster film Runaway Jury. Needless to say, it was the best thing about the movie (don’t believe me? Runaway Jury was the movie which forced Gene Hackman into retirement from acting). As for the song itself “Heart of Mine” is a Dylan piffle featured on his often forgotten 1981 album Shot of Love, so one has to wonder why this song from the songwriter’s vast catalogue resonated with Norah Jones, one of the industry’s most lauded and talented vocalists.
Here, Jones performs with The Peter Malick Group from their 2002 album New York City (the performances actually happened in 2000 right before Jones hit super-stardom) and it is in fact, the only cover on the album. It’s hard to believe this track is now 20 years old but even harder to believe that Shot of Love is almost 40. As you can see from this inclusion (and the next one), there’s something about the “forgotten” Dylan that spoke to many of the current performers. I’m sure they (and fans) can’t wait for the Bootleg Series to this period to come to light.
Emmylou Harris: “Every Grain of Sand”
This is the third track on this list from Shot of Love, and yes, that album certainly has had its critics, but even those critics have unanimously said that the album closer, “Every Grain of Sand” is not only that album’s standout track, but it’s also one of the most evocative and moving songs Dylan has ever penned. Even more remarkable was that the song was written quickly and without fuss. This, according to Dylan himself who remarked to filmmaker Cameron Crowe, “Sand was an inspired song that came to me. It wasn’t really too difficult. I felt like I was just putting words down that were coming from somewhere else.” This non-difficult song, however, is considered to be one of Dylan’s finest and one that has moved other artists to make their own. Maybe that’s why it speaks to the artists listed in this article—and will no doubt continue to.
For Emmylou Harris (who had previously appeared as a backup performer on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire), this song spoke to her so much she included it on her critically acclaimed 1995 album Wrecking Ball. Maybe it was the combo of rock and gospel which moved her to put her stamp on it. Who knows? It’s a song that touched her so much she (along with Sheryl Crow) performed it at the 2003 funeral for Johnny Cash. And Harris isn’t the only one who recognizes this song’s greatness; Bruce Springsteen cited “Every Grain Of Sand” as an example of Dylan’s best work when he inducted Dylan into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (the song was only seven years old at the time).
Now, 40 years later it still speaks to artists. In fact, just last month The Pretenders performed it for their COVID-19 lockdown series on YouTube. It seems the song’s message resonates in 2020 just as it did in 1981: the world may be a strange and scary place, but each one of us matters in it—just like every grain of sand.